House questions impact of post-Nassar statute of limitations bills
Lansing — There will be no quick House passage of bills designed to extend the state’s statute of limitation on sexual abuse complaints in the wake of the Larry Nassar scandal.
House committee hearings on the bills began Tuesday and are expected to continue for the next couple of weeks, said Rep. Klint Kesto, the panel chairman who chided the Senate committee’s quick passage of the bills in February.
“Absolutely, it passed too quickly,” Kesto, R-Commerce Township, told reporters after the Tuesday committee meeting. “It was one hour worth. We had an hour and a half worth of testimony. We have to do the work of making sure we get the right thing going."
Sponsoring lawmakers and Nassar victims announced the Senate package at the Michigan Capitol on Feb. 26, and the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the 10-bill package the following afternoon.
The Senate bills discussed Tuesday would allow for a longer time period in which victims could pursue criminal and civil action against their sexual abusers, extending the criminal state of limitations from 10 years to 30 years past the age of majority and the civil statute of limitations from three years or one year past the age of majority to 10 years for adults and 30 years past the age of majority for children. The proposal also would make the law retroactive to 1997.
The bills would nix governmental immunity for institutions that did know or should have known an employee was a child sexual abuser, and allow victims to file anonymously in the state Court of Claims.
Three women abused by Nassar testified in support of the bills Tuesday alongside state Sen. Margaret O’Brien, R-Portage, who introduced many of the Senate bills in February.
“I’ve been a social worker, I’ve been involved in a lot of advocacy work for children over my life,” O’Brien said. “And we haven’t moved the needle on lessening or eliminating how many of our children are sexually assaulted, and it's very disturbing.”
Larissa Boyce, a former gymnast, testified about her experience in 1997 when, at the age of 16, she reported Nassar’s behavior to Michigan State University coach Kathie Klages and was assured it was medically appropriate. She said her story is one of the reasons the statute of limitations needed to change.
“Every day these proposals are delayed additional children will be hurt,” Boyce said. “These bills need to passed as quickly as possible.”
At multiple times during Tuesday’s hearing, representatives questioned data used to support the bills, including statistics pertaining to rape convictions and the rate of false claims.
Rachael Denhollander, a lawyer and former gymnast whose 2016 report to MSU police about Nassar spurred hundreds of others to come forward, stood by various statistics cited Tuesday, including data showing a 2 percent to 8 percent rate of false claims in cases of sexual abuse. She said much of the data was aggregated by Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
Denhollander said concerns the legislation may be unconstitutional is unfounded.
And, given the low occurrence of false claims, Denhollander said concerns about whether the legislation would bankrupt institutions were immaterial.
“What is more important?” Denhollander said. “Stopping childhood sexual assault and giving victims access to the justice system or institutions and corporations? You are playing a balancing game between children and dollars, children and institutions.”
Among those expressing concerns about the potential changes to the statute of limitations are the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Michigan Catholic Conference, the Michigan Associations of School Boards, the Michigan Community College Association, the Michigan Association of Counties, the Michigan Townships Association, the Michigan Municipal League and former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Maura Corrigan.
The criticisms by analysts include that the legislation would prompt a significant increase in litigation and related costs, greater financial exposure, hurting government credit ratings, increased insurance costs, and the difficulty of defending against a 30-year-old complaint.
In a letter sent to the House committee Friday, Kent County Circuit Judge Donald Johnston called the bills “bad policy” that could net innocent defendants alongside the guilty.
While the bills “might provide some further relief to some of the Nassar victims and their lawyers," Johnston wrote, "it will also significantly increase the prospect of wrongful convictions in criminal cases, and retroactively increase the prospect of crippling and inappropriate judgement being entered in civil cases.”
Rep. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, echoed the concerns, acknowledging that not even state schools are required to keep their records for more than 30 years.
“You’re asking us to go back a very long time, and to require people to be able to defend themselves a very long time,” Theis said.
Denhollander said any plaintiffs bringing a criminal or civil action would need to provide evidence that it had happened. Theis countered that a civil action only required a preponderance of the evidence as opposed to higher burden of proof in a criminal case.
The Brighton lawmaker added that she worries the legislation would penalize a taxpayer-funded institution for the actions or inaction of its workers.
“To make the taxpayers pay for something they had no access, accountability or responsibility for is not something that I think is necessarily fair,” Theis said.
Denhollander said she understood the concerns but, unfortunately, “institutions are not motivated to do the right thing unless there are consequences for that.”